In advance of this Thursday’s screening of the film (4:00 pm Drown 210), Mentored: Sexual Misconduct in Graduate School, I’m sharing a conversation I had with Kari Moffat, a member of the production team behind the documentary. The film is written, directed, and produced by Lehigh University students and in its promotional materials, Mentored is described as exploring “the dark side of graduate school”. The film “focuses on how the relationship between graduate students and their faculty mentors can lead to sexual misconduct. With misconduct cases being widespread at universities across the country, Mentored examines why these relationships can be so toxic and why it is still a commonly occurring situation.” As someone who is interested in the intersections of gender and education more broadly, I sat down with Kari to ask her some questions about the film team’s choice of this topic during the ongoing coming-to-terms with our own campus’ recent stories of sexual misconduct. We focused on the interview process and how she might imagine other projects continuing the work of this film.
Sarita: Could you say a little more about how the team first came to the topic of sexual misconduct in academia and how you narrowed it down to focus on the grad school mentorship relationship? Obviously, there’s a lot still happening in the wake of the #metoo movement.
Kari: We were tasked as a group to come together before the semester to talk with Professor Kramp and Julia Maserjian to decide which direction to take. We started off more broadly- thinking about women in gender studies- and we decided to contextualize our ideas by considering what was going on today. We thought okay- the #metoo movement: “What can we make that will address that movement and communicate it in a way that people will understand our project in a related way?” Okay- we can’t make a movie about the entire #metoo movement so let’s focus on one piece of this: graduate school. I was excited about this direction because this is actually my first year as a graduate student. Diving into something looking at the power dynamics between mentors and mentees was an interesting way of specifying an area under the broader theme of sexual misconduct in academia. Also, we’re making a short film, not a feature film, and we wanted to be sure that we could have enough material that we could do justice to. Also- this was one of the relationships we identified as being significantly different between undergraduate education and grad school. In undergrad you just aren’t as close to professors as you are in grad school and in grad school you are working together on something that often becomes part of your identity. We focused on graduate students to help show the difference or evolution of that professor-student relationship for those who might not be aware of how that changes at the grad school level as well as the misconduct issues.
Sarita: That sounds interesting and like the group put a lot of thought into narrowing that topic down. However, with such a sensitive topic I can imagine that you might have had some difficulty identifying willing people to talk to about this subject. Can you say a little bit about how you found ways to find people who were willing to share and if there were any challenges the team faced as they were collecting information and stories?
Kari: We wanted to make sure that we hit all of our topic areas. We reached out to both graduate directors and mentors as well as graduate students just to show what that life is like. I mean, I’m a first-year graduate student and I don’t even know what graduate student life is fully like yet! We wanted to reach out to people to get the full story of what graduate school is like as well in this film as well as address the full scope of how this issue is being handled in grad school. So we reached out to the Title IX office about the sexual misconduct reporting process, we talked to people who have gone through the reporting process, we’ve talked to people who have NOT gone through the process, all because we needed to see all sides. There are multiple sides to every story and it is important to try and address all of those.
We reached out to administrators because we thought it was important to get the institution’s perspective as well as the student perspective. We reached out to professors at schools both within and outside of the Lehigh Valley to see what their schools are like as they approach this issue. It wasn’t easy working within a semester-long time frame when the goal was to collect as many perspectives and experiences as possible, but my experience of the process was great. Some folks on the team had a lot of “non responses” which is part of the film, too- addressing how there is a “culture of silence” around this and how difficult it can be to find people willing to talk about it. I think everybody has a story that is worth being told- it’s just “how do you tell those stories? How do you go about those?”
Sarita: That sounds like a really inclusive approach to the subject. Moving to the last cut of the film itself, how do you feel about the final product? Do you have any ideas about what you see as the message or the function of the film? If you had a chance to take another look at this subject, how might you envision the next approach or identify, say, the next step if there could be a companion project of sorts continuing this work?
Kari: Our end goal was to not sensationalize or suggest any sort of “tie it with a bow” solution. Awareness was our biggest thing. I keep going back to my own experience as a new graduate student who was completely unaware of the conditions and possibility of [sexual misconduct] in graduate school. We want to open up conversation and continue the conversations that the #metoo movement has started. We want to add our piece to that conversation.
If we could have another opportunity to look at this subject, I think I’d try and get more funding to travel and talk to people outside of the Lehigh Valley instead of our Skype sessions. It would get a more national scope on the issue. I can see doing it again and bringing in more people from across the country. It would be a different film, an extension that points out that it doesn’t just happen in the Lehigh Valley. We did Skype in some prominent figures and we are happy to have their perspective, but we would have loved to have more time since there were so many outstanding stories. We always want to put everything in, but there just isn’t enough time for all of it.
Sarita: Great! Thank you for your time, Kari. I’m looking forward to attending the screening and seeing your team’s work this Thursday at 4:00 pm in Drown Hall, Room 210!